Less than a year after Hillary Clinton left her position as Secretary of State, many of the trends that derailed her campaign for the White House in 2008 are reemerging.
We may be in for a fall of rolling crises, looming government shutdowns and a potential catastrophic debt default in Washington, but that doesn’t mean that speculation about the 2016 presidential race is going to die down anytime soon. In fact, we are already deep into the so called “invisible primary” stage of the race to determine the Democratic and Republican nominees. As you read this, potential nominees are competing behind the scenes to lock down the support of important party actors like fundraisers and elected officials, which will help to determine who can viably contest the nomination as we get closer to the Iowa Caucuses in 2016.
For the Republicans the emerging trend of the invisible primary points to a very large group of contenders fighting for purchase and looking to avoid being “winnowed” out of the field at an early stage. For the Democrats it looks like a fight to see if any challenger can emerge to stop a potential “coronation campaign” with Hillary Clinton wining with minimal opposition. While there is still a lot of time between now and Iowa, the bad news for the Hillary camp is that many of the trends that derailed her campaign for the White House in 2008 seem to be reemerging.
The Clintons have long had a love/hate relationship with the press. Basically the political press love to write about all things Clintontonian and they love to write about them even more in a less than flattering light. As political scientist and media critic Brendan Nyhan recently pointed out, the new Hillary Clinton twitter account caused the press to basically go crazy with dubious “analysis” that consisted of everything from predicting Hillary’s intentions to speculating on her political fears based on, “a 23-word Twitter bio and one tweet.” Martin O’Malley or Deval Patrick might have to worry about being ignored by the media , but that’s never been a problem for Hillary or Bill.
This dynamic has given the Clintons a huge megaphone from the press to express themselves since they left the White House, with things like Bill Clinton’s various initiatives being regularly treated as major national news. But at the same time for twenty plus years now reporters seem to have covered everything they did in the language of scandal. Thus the never ending made up scandals in the 90’s, think Whitewater, Travelgate and the morbid coverage of the death of Vince Foster. Many of these phony scandals were initially hawked by the pre-Fox News version of the Republican partisan press, but they migrated to traditional press outlets rather easily and where they were mulled over for years. During Hillary’s tenure as Secretary of State a lot of this type of coverage was put on the back burner for more substantive coverage. But now that Hillary is easing back into the world of partisan politics, the press has started to roll out “Clinton scandals” once again. Most recently in a Washington Post article seeking to link her 2008 presidential campaign to scandals involving the election of Vincent Gray as mayor of Washington D.C. in 2010.
The love/hate dynamic also plays out in Bill and Hillary’s relationship to the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Playing an interesting game, liberals seem to look fondly on Bill and Hillary when they are out of power, but quickly become more critical once one of them is back in the driver’s seat. While he sat in the White House liberal criticism directed at Bill Clinton over things like welfare reform, free trade and cuts to entitlement spending was often times quite fierce. It was really only after Bush took over, that a lot of liberals remember how much they loved Bill Clinton after all. Similarly while liberal discontent over Hillary Clinton was a crucial part of the reason why she lost the nomination in 2008, many liberals began to yearn for the Hillary “path not taken” once she transitioned to the less partisan job of Secretary of State.
Now that Hillary is the presumptive Democratic front runner for 2016, a lot of liberals are again being critical about her and her husband. Alec MacGillis recently published a lengthy article on Doug Band, a one-time Bill Clinton body man turned member of the Clinton inner circle and power broker. Expect these types of liberal critiques to only get louder as the invisible primary moves forward.
The core problem here for Hillary is the semi-permanent nature of the public images that politicians get when they emerge on the national scene. New figures just emerging onto the political stage can often times create an image of themselves that is echoed by the press with only a few narrative strands. Thus George W. Bush was able to sell himself as a “compassionate conservative” to most of the political media by embracing a few small bore issues like government support for faith based initiatives. Or Barack Obama was able to turn himself into the darling of the anti-war left by simply saying, “What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” This is not exactly a radical or even blatantly anti-war statement, but it was enough to bring lots of liberals into his camp. But trying to change a political image after it’s been created can be one of the most difficult tasks for a politician imaginable. Just ask George H.W. Bush about if defeating Noriega or Saddam made pundits stop calling him a wimp. Just as Bill Clinton about being called Slick Willie.”
Hillary Clinton has now lived in the political spotlight for over 20 years, which means the image the media has created for her, fairly or unfairly, is here to stay. That means more trumped up scandal stories and more liberals feeling betrayed. She won’t be able to shake this image, the question is whether she can overcome it.
Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP